Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Easter Story - Then and Now (a sermon for Easter Sunday)

Can you imagine for a moment what it felt like to be in the shoes of the followers of Jesus – Peter and John and James and Mary Magdalene and the rest – on the evening of Good Friday?

They had all come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah – the King like David - the one God was going to send to Israel, the one who would drive out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders and set up God’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth. The old prophecies had said that the Messiah would defeat his enemies through the power of God, and so they had followed Jesus confidently, knowing that when they got to Jerusalem there would be a showdown, and that he would be victorious.

But something had gone horribly wrong with the plan. Jesus had not defeated his enemies; he had been crucified by them. This was not something they had been expecting. In fact, in their minds, this could only mean one thing: they had been wrong about him. He was not the true Messiah after all! They had wasted the last three years of their lives on an imposter. The best thing for them to do was to keep their heads down in the city until the dust settled, and then slip off quietly back to Galilee, resume their lives, and chalk this one up to experience. And so they hid behind locked doors in the upper room, biding their time.

But then the stories began to come in.

Some of the women went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning to finish the job of anointing the body of Jesus (which the arrival of the Sabbath had interrupted). Tombs in those days were not like graves today – they were family affairs, usually caves in which the bodies were kept until they had decayed and all that was left were bones. Then the bones would be collected and placed in an ossuary, and that particular place in the tomb would be available for another family member when it was needed. That’s why John’s gospel specifies that this was a ‘new tomb in which no one had ever been laid’ (19:41), made available to Jesus by a rich man who had been one of his secret followers.

But as we read in our gospel this morning, when the women reached the tomb they got a shock; the huge stone across the entrance had been rolled away, and when they looked in, they saw that the body was gone. So they ran to the place where the disciples were hiding and told them about it. In John’s gospel we read that Peter and John decided to investigate; they ran back to the garden, and one of the women, Mary Magdalene, followed them. Peter and John found everything as Mary had said – the body gone, the linen cloths lying where it had been, with the turban for the head lying a little way away, neatly folded. Puzzled, not knowing what was going on, but beginning to hope, Peter and John slipped away.

But John’s gospel tells us that Mary stayed at the tomb, and so she became the first person to actually see Jesus alive after his resurrection. I want to point out to you that if a fiction writer in first century Jerusalem had been making this story up, there are two details he would definitely have left out. First, in the culture of that day women were considered to be unreliable witnesses; their evidence was inadmissible in a court of law. So if you were making this story up and wanting to convince people that it was true, you definitely wouldn’t have a woman as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection. Secondly, you definitely wouldn’t include a story about how sometimes people didn’t recognize Jesus at first; you would want to get across the idea that there was absolutely no doubt about his identity.

The gospel writers, however, were not quite so creative with the truth as some modern skeptical scholars would have us believe. They tell us that a woman was the first witness of the resurrection because they knew that that is, in fact, what happened. And they also tell us that when she first saw the risen Jesus, she didn’t recognize him right away. She wasn’t alone in that. There was something very mysterious about the appearance of the risen Lord, and people didn’t always grasp right at the beginning that it was him. This was the story that the witnesses remembered, and because they were honest, they told the truth.

So Jesus appeared first of all to Mary by the tomb early on Easter morning. Later in the afternoon two followers of Jesus were walking from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus, seven miles away; they were talking sadly about what had happened, but then a stranger came and joined them as they walked along the road. He asked them what they were talking about, and out came the whole story. “How dull you are!” the stranger said: “Don’t you know the scriptures predicted this?” And he proceeded to give them a guided tour through all the prophecies and explained how they had been fulfilled in Jesus.

Eventually they reached their destination and invited him in for a meal. There he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them, and their eyes were opened and they realized it had been Jesus all the time. He vanished from their sight, but they ran all the way back to Jerusalem, went to the upper room and told the disciples “We’ve seen him!” The others said, “Yes, we know – he’s appeared to Peter as well!” – a meeting we know nothing about beyond the fact that it happened some time during the day. But as they were talking together, to their amazement Jesus appeared among them. They were afraid, and some found it hard to believe, but when he invited them to touch him and asked them for something to eat, they realized it was true.

And so it continued for the next six weeks. Sometimes Jesus appeared to individuals, sometimes to groups; at one time, to a group of more than five hundred of his followers. Sometimes the appearances were in Jerusalem, sometimes back in Galilee. Sometimes people recognized him right away, at other times it took longer. It was wild and unpredictable and scary and exciting; the disciples knew that God’s power had broken into their world as never before. The story of Jesus wasn’t over after all: in fact, it had only just begun!

If it’s true, what difference does it make for you and me?

Well, the early Christians believed it meant that God had made Jesus the true Lord of all. We read about that in our first reading this morning. When Peter was sharing the Gospel with the household of Cornelius the Roman soldier, he began by saying,
“You know the message (God) sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).

‘Lord of all’ in the time of Jesus was a title that already had an owner – Caesar, the Roman emperor. It was one of his official titles. But the early Christians were impudent enough to steal it from Caesar and give it to their carpenter rabbi from Nazareth. And they liked to quote a verse from the book of Psalms and apply it to Jesus. It says:
The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool” (Psalm 110:1).

Peter quotes that verse in a sermon he preaches in the second chapter of Acts:
“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”’.
Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:32-36).

Now it might seem strange to us, at the end of a week in which we’ve seen fresh examples of the evil power of human beings to inflict murder and terror on one another – it might seem strange to us at a time like this to assert that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. And of course the early Christians weren’t blind to this reality. By the time the Book of Acts was written many of the early apostles had given their lives for the cause of Christ. Most of them had not been supernaturally delivered, either. They were well aware that the powers and authorities continued to rebel against the rule of God. But in the face of this fact they continued to assert two things.

First, they continued to assert the Lordship of Jesus. But they remembered that when he had walked the earth he had refused to exercise that Lordship by force. He had told his disciples to love their enemies, pray for those who hated them, turn the other cheek, and not return evil for evil. And then, on the Cross, he put his own teaching into practice. As they nailed the spikes into his wrists and feet, he prayed, ‘Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing’.

So the early Christians expected that if they followed Jesus as Lord, they would suffer for their loyalty to him. This wasn’t a strange thing to them. This is what happens when the love of God invades a world dominated by the forces of greed and power. Jesus himself had foretold it. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). When Jesus spoke those words, ‘taking up your cross’ meant being executed by the Romans as a threat to the state. Jesus warned his followers that this would happen to them, and so they weren’t surprised.

But the second thing the early Christians continued to assert was that in the long run, everyone would be answerable to Jesus, God’s anointed king. Less than forty years after the death of Jesus, Paul said,
‘Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:9-11).
In other words, the one who will have the last word is not Caesar, it’s not the dark and shadowy leaders of terrorist organizations or the kings of multinational corporations. All of the powers and authorities of this world will on day have to give account to the one God has appointed both Lord and Messiah. As we say over and over again in the Nicene Creed – so often, perhaps, that we don’t notice it – ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’.

So the resurrection means that God has made Jesus Lord of all, and in the end, everyone will be answerable to him – which is good news, because he is a just and merciful lord, not a cruel tyrant. But there’s one more thing we need to say about what the resurrection means to us: it means that Jesus is on the loose.

They tried to nail Jesus down, but they couldn’t do it. Love is stronger than death. The power of God is stronger than all the hatred of human beings. And the risen Jesus has not abandoned us; he is still at work in the lives of people who follow him.

But you can’t summon him up like a genie in a bottle. He’s not under our control, so that we can produce him like a conjuror’s trick. When we read the stories of the risen Jesus in the gospels and the Book of Acts, it’s quite clear that no one really knew when he was going to show up. People could call on his name, but they could not make him answer. He was the one who was going to take the initiative. He was the one who would decide what he was going to do.

And the same is true today. Some people tell stories of dramatic experiences of the risen Lord, but most of us come to know him in quieter ways. He promised his followers that after his resurrection he would be present to them in a new way – by giving them the Holy Spirit of God to come into their hearts as the living presence of God in their lives. That experience – the inner presence of the Holy Spirit – is the way that most of us Christians today come to know the risen Jesus. That’s what Peter was talking about in the sermon I quoted from earlier on, when he said,
“Being therefore exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, (Jesus) has poured out this that you both see and hear” (Acts 2:33).

Please don’t think that because it is quiet and less tangible than a bodily resurrection, the presence of the Holy Spirit is somehow less real. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the testimony of Christians that the presence of the Spirit is one of the most real things we experience in our lives. We hear his voice speaking to us in the Scriptures and in our hearts. We sense his guidance in those gentle ‘nudges’ that we follow sometimes, and find that he’s got things for us to do. We sense his presence when we gather with sisters and brothers to worship God. When we do the work of sharing the good news of Jesus with others, we usually discover that he’s been there before us, working in their hearts and arousing an interest in the person of Jesus. And when he asks us to do things we expected to find impossible, we find instead that there’s a strength greater than our own, helping us to do more than we thought we could.

Jesus is alive. He gives us his Holy Spirit. We can’t control him or pin him down. He goes ahead of us, surprising us and delighting us, challenging us, and leading us to do the will of the Father. In other words, the story that began on that first Easter morning is not over. It continues to this day. God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus who we crucified, and one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

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